Wisconsin Badgers have problems to fix before the Big Ten Season

John Clay

Much like the NFL preseason, the third game of the No. 11 ranked Wisconsin Badgers non-conference schedule should serve as a dress rehearsal for the Big Ten Conference season, where teams like Ohio State and Iowa already look prepped and ready to defend their Top 10 status.

Of course, the keyword in that sentence is “should,” as the current version of the 2010 Wisconsin Badgers is one of more questions than answers heading into their toughest non-Big Ten matchup against the Arizona State Sun Devils.

By Jake McCormick [Read more…]

Northwestern vs. Wisconsin: Battle for Better Bowl Placement

Michigan Wisconsin Football

By Paul M. Banks and Jake McCormick

(PMB) #16 Wisconsin has had themselves a quietly, make that very quietly, productive season. 9-2, 5-2 and neither of their losses were very bad losses. Yet no one is singing their praises, what’s up with that? We know all about Scott Tolzien, John Clay and that Big Ten leading rushing attack, who/what else do we need to know about?

(JM) I was just paging through the new Sports Illustrated college basketball preview issue, and they ranked 65 teams with no mention of Bo Ryan’s Badgers, despite the fact that they always make it into the NCAA tournament and always overachieve. My point is that Wisconsin fans are used to getting completely shafted despite any typical/surprise successes. Part of that comes from having an extremely boring style of offense in nearly all sports, but if it gets the job done that’s good enough right?

And if my memory serves me correctly, Jim Tressel isn’t exactly lighting up scoreboards with his playcalling, yet Terrelle Pryor’s overratedness is covered more than any Badger underratedness. The only other thing you’d need to know about Wisconsin is that Bret Bielema should be Big Ten Coach of the Year because of his recruiting abilities; not his coaching, which is still very much a question mark in big games.

(PMB) Any special NFL level talent on Wisconsin other than Garrett Graham, the most boring and lifeless interview subject in the history of Big Ten football, and O’Brien Schofield. What about Nick Toon? Or are we talking about him just because his Dad is Al Toon, and his name is reminiscent of Nicktoons on Nickelodeon.

For NU, you might see Corey Wootton and Sherrick McMannis, maybe Adam Hahn playing on Sundays next fall. Their main attraction on the college level though is the Mike Kafka to Zeke Markshausen connection, which sounds a lot like a NFL Europe pitch and catch combo. And of course, many references here are truly….Kafakesque.

Northwestern Illinois Football(JM) Kafka is a pretty decent writer too; I remember reading and enjoying metamorphosis in my AP English class senior year in high school. Did I just make a classical literature reference? Graham is the only senior position player on the offensive side of the ball, but he won’t be missed nearly as much next year with the recent emergence of Lance Kendricks.

The Badgers have quietly become a consistent producer of good all-around tight ends, and Kendricks’ chemistry with Tolzien grows with each game. Toon is a legit, 6’4” receiver (and only a sophomore!) and will undoubtedly follow in the footsteps of Lee Evans, Chris Chambers, and his father on Sundays. The Badger offensive line always sends at least two guys to the NFL, and my top candidates are juniors John Moffitt and Gabe Carimi. Defensively, Jaevery McFadden will make it on a roster somewhere as a special teams player. Thankfully, most of the team is underclassmen, so there is some time before I have to worry about filling big shoes.

(PMB) This is the 93rd meeting between Wisconsin and Northwestern, and the first since ’06. The rivalry with Wisconsin is Northwestern’s oldest among Big Ten teams (dating to 1890). Only NU and Illinois have played more games (103) than NU and Wisconsin (92). And with David Kay in attendance this time, it’s an even bigger rivalry for The Sports Bank, as both TSB’s President and V.P. will be there. In the two teams last meeting at Ryan Field (2005), the Wildcats exploded for a school-record 674 yards of offense as they won a thrilling shootout, 51-48. Brett Basanez threw for 361 yards and Tyrell Sutton ran for 244. Expecting a barn-burner?

Michigan Wisconsin Football

(JM) I liked the way Pat Fitzgerald rallied his team together to beat Iowa two weeks ago, because the Hawkeyes have been squeaking by too many games and definitely deserved a loss at the hands of a non-elite Big Ten team. And to quote Boars and Bernstein, he definitely looks like a guy that goes to bed in full Wildcat pajamas. With that said, all of Northwestern’s Big Ten wins have been by seven points or less and their closest loss was by 10 points. I would expect the Wildcats to score anywhere between 17 and 24 points, but the Badgers have put up 30 or more in three straight games. I think the game will play out much like the Michigan game last week, where Northwestern stays in it for a couple quarters but Wisconsin pulls away early in the second half.

I don’t think Bielema will let this team coast through the end of the season, especially when they’re one win away from 10 on the year.

(PMB) Yes, Fitzgerald certainly is Coachy McCoachington when it comes to his general intensity. Currently the Champs Sports, Alamo and Insight bowls are the leading candidates for the Wildcats’ holiday destination. I’d prefer the Champs Sports Bowl because

a.) it used to be called the Continental Tires Bowl, and this new name is just such an upgrade, I guess.

b.) they did the Alamo Bowl last year and that didn’t work out too well.

c.) they haven’t won a bowl since 1949 (and in this city this is only a modest drought, as big long sports dry spells are to Chicago what clips of people getting physically damaged are to Comedy Central’s Tosh.O) and I just see the match-up in Orlando being magical.

Because it’s where Disney is based, and when you wish upon a star, you finally might win a bowl game.

So where will Wisconsin go bowling? You guys seem to get a New Year’s Day bowl in Florida every year, so much so that they don’t even sell the Bowl packages anymore. It’s all old hat to the fanbase. Like Amy Winehouse and crack, heroin, and cocaine, it’s all routine now. Would even be excited about playing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers home? What are some other options?

kafka_metomor

(JM) Florida LOVES Wisconsin bowl appearances because we travel really well and literally empty the kegs at local bars. These are stories I hear from family members that have made trips down for Sunshine State bowls. I wouldn’t have been happy with anything other than a January bowl this year, because I consider Wisconsin one of the top programs in the Big Ten and hate settling for a dot com, before Christmas bowl. It’s also good for recruiting. By the default of having the four ranked Big Ten teams at 10, 13, 14, and 16, Wisconsin seems destined for the bloomin’ onion bowl, aka the Outback Bowl. Unless Penn State or Iowa lose this weekend to the clearly inferior Michigan State or Minnesota, respectively, that is the only New Year’s Day bowl left for Wisconsin. They will be in the Capital One bowl if the Nittany Lions or Hawkeyes lose, but I wouldn’t bet on it against two extremely underachieving teams. Mediocrity and inconsistency is the name of the Big Ten game, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I get a Christmas present early.

Northwestern Iowa Football

(PMB) Predictions and final thoughts?? I’m going to say Wisconsin 37-24, and I have a feeling around mid 3rd the Sconnies will put this one away. Fitz’s teams are just plain better on the road. Mostly because many sections of Ryan Field are emptier than Sarah Palin’s head on most Saturdays, so there’s not really much of a home-field advantage going on. And I expect Saturday’s crowd to have more red than a Che Guevara pep rally.

(JM) Haha…honestly, I wrote the game turnout response a couple paragraphs above, so it looks like we’re in the same boat here. It’ll be close enough early to trigger flashbacks of unexpected losses to Northwestern, but at the end of the day I think Wisconsin will pull away with a final score around what you predicted. It’ll be interesting to see where the Wildcats are in a few years, because they seem to be improving each year as a program. I would have no problem with the return of the Darnell Autry teams of yesteryear.

(PMB) I second that. Good luck, and may the best team win Saturday.

Wisconsin beat Wisconsin against Ohio State, can’t do the same vs. Iowa

ohiostate2

By Jake McCormick

In their 31-13 loss at Ohio State, the Wisconsin Badgers led the stat line 22-8 in first downs, 368 to 184 in total yards, and 42:47 to 17:13 in time of possession. But quarterback Scott Tolzien threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns and the special teams gave up a 96-yard kick return for another that iced the game for the Buckeyes. I won’t completely blame the inexperienced quarterback, as the offensive line must’ve watched too many Packer games before giving up six sacks after only allowing two all year.

Take away those Plaxico Burress mistakes, and what do you have? A 13-10 Badger lead in a game where they clearly outplayed a supposedly superior team. Then again, the team that takes advantage of, instead of committing, turnovers rightfully should win.

ohiostate1But is it any surprise then that the Badgers are two and a half point favorites playing at home against the No. 11 ranked Iowa Hawkeyes, who have won 11 straight at Camp Randall? The loss at Ohio State was a horse pill to swallow, but it was necessary for this team to understand that when they are operating at their highest points, the only thing they have to fear is digging their own graves. The Badgers lost to a Buckeye team that has a high likelihood of losing at least one more game in the Big Ten season, and now will face a team in Iowa that is third nationally in takeaways.

The one big confidence boost the Badger defense can continue to build into the Iowa game is their ability to pressure a quarterback. The team has 16 sacks on the year, and defensive ends O’Brien Schofield and JJ Watt play like the Mighty Duck Bash Brothers. Preseason Offensive Player of the Year Terrell Pryor looked as uncomfortable as a lone 7-year-old boy in a class of 22 girls. Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi has been inconsistent this year, and if the Badgers can get to him early they will be able to replicate their clock dominance.

Once again, the key matchup for the Badgers will be their offense against a very good Iowa defense. The offense needs to show it can do more than play between the 20s against a talented team that allows only 15.8 ppg if the Badgers want to stay in the running for the Big Ten title. The bottom line is that John Clay will get his 20+ carries as long as Tolzien doesn’t do his best Dustin Sherer impression. I find it strange I found a way to use “best” and “Dustin Sherer” in the same sentence.

Here are four important questions for Wisconsin heading into their second straight top 15 matchup:

Can Scott Tolzien bounce back and limit mistakes against an Iowa defense that ranks at the top of the Big Ten in almost every statistical category, including interceptions?

The Badger pass rush has twice as many sacks as Iowa (8 to 16). Considering both quarterbacks will need to play at a reasonably high, mistake free level to win, who will win the battle up front on both sides of the ball?ohiostate

Wisconsin hasn’t had the best kick coverage so far and it culminated in Ray Smalls’ 96-yarder that all but killed any chance of a Badger comeback. Even though Hawkeye leading return man Paul Chaney Jr. is out for the season, Iowa’s special teams have been strong all year. How big of a role will special teams play in Saturday’s game?

Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi has 10 touchdowns, but has thrown eight interceptions. Can the Badgers continue to force turnovers while limiting their own?

Badgers impressive in Big Ten opener, now to focus on keeping Paul Bunyan’s Axe

Michigan St  Wisconsin Football

By Jake McCormick

I’ve seen so many horror/thriller movies that I’ve gotten into a mindset where the main character could be sitting in a living room writing a thesis paper on the Chi Square and I would fully expect a 2×4 to come flying through the window and make acquaintance with said character’s temple. Hell, I had that feeling the other night watching Milk for the first time. That’s how bad it’s gotten.

But we’ve all had a few moments where no matter what good you see, you are automatically assuming it is a mirage or outlier. If you’re a Wisconsin Badger fan, this is about as common as TNT playing a Tom Selleck movie or TBS running a 48-hour Tyler Perry marathon. But after a dominant win against Michigan State, where Scott Tolzien’s performance netted him Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors and the defense held the normally high-powered Spartan offense to 17 points over 55 minutes, the Badgers look as ready as ever for the Big Ten season.

In the second quarter against Wofford, the Badgers scored 28 points, and committed zero penalties. Can the team find a way to harness that dominance over more than a quarter of play?

The Badgers scored in every quarter, ended each half with 14 points, and only committed one penalty for five yards each quarter. Statistically, the Badgers look like the most consistent offensive team in the Big Ten, ranking second in points, total yards, yards per game, rushing yards per game, and third down conversions. Minnesota’s defense has a fairly strong pass rush, but is in the middle of the pack in overall ability. The battle up front will be key to a Badger victory.

Michigan St  Wisconsin FootballCoach Bielema laughed a little about students yelling “Tolzien for Heisman” heading down the locker room tunnel. Obviously that slogan is pretty farfetched, but what can Tolzien do in a high pressure game against a tough opponent?

Does Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week answer that question? Tolzien continues to improve each week and spread the wealth in a way that would make FOX News pundits foam at the mouth. He is arguably the best quarterback in the Big Ten right now, leading the league in QB rating (161.7) and yards per attempt (8.8), and is second in completion percentage (66.7). Let’s also give the offensive line some credit, as they have given up a league leading two sacks for -13 yards. Tolzien will face his first road test against Minnesota, who have only recorded two interceptions on the year and sit right in the middle of the Big Ten against the pass statistically.

Can the Badger running backs protect the ball and prevent turnovers?

John Clay has taken a first step into a larger world. He registered his first 30 carry game of his career, protected the ball all game, and pounded out 143 yards against a fairly good run defense. Greg Jones was barely a factor, and the Badger rushing attack will again face a good group of linebackers in Minnesota, all three of which rank in the top six for tackles in the conference.

Michigan St Wisconsin FootballI’ve altered the last question to focus on the defensive side of the ball: The defense leads the Big Ten in turnover margin and has at least three in each game this year. Is playmaking able to make up for giving up yardage?

Wisconsin’s defense is seventh in points against (23.8) and is similarly ranked in yards given up. But they are second in interceptions and tied for first in fumbles. Likewise, the Badgers are ranked third in tackles for loss and fifth in sacks. Michigan State tallied over 400 yards of offense, but yards don’t win games; points do.

Questions for this week’s matchup with another buck-toothed rodent:

How will the Badgers respond to their first big ten road game, especially in a new stadium that adds more hype to an already strong rivalry?

The Badgers held star Spartan receiver Blair White to one catch for nine yards. How will they deal with Minnesota stud Eric Decker, who is the focal point of the gopher offense?

Wisconsin has multiple weapons in its passing offense, and it seems like a different player leads the team in receiving each week. Can the Badgers utilize their offensive diversity to neutralize a good Gopher linebacking corps?

Was the 30 carries, 143 yards against the Spartans a breakout or fluke for John Clay? Can he continue that in a rivalry road game?

Badgers handle Wofford, take training wheels off for MSU

Wofford Wisconsin Football

By Jake McCormick

And now it begins. After three non-conference home games that ended in expected fashion, the Wisconsin Badgers are poised to take on Michigan State in their fourth straight home game at Camp Randall. By the end of the Badgers’ 44-14 victory over Wofford (located in South Carolina by the way), the team was still struggling to find an identity. There were no shortages of playmakers on either side of the ball, however.

Tight end Lance Kendricks emerged as a threat in the passing game by leading the team in receptions (six) and yards (70), and added a touchdown. Receiver Nick Toon continued to impress with big catches downfield, and Scott Tolzien continues to grow into the starting quarterback position by completing 15-of-20 passes for 159 yards, two touchdowns, and no turnovers. The running backs were another story, but I’ll get to that later.

Wofford Wisconsin FootballDefensive end O’Brien Schofield tallied another sack, middle linebacker Culmer St. Jean led the team in tackles with 15, and freshman Mike Taylor continued to improve as an outside linebacker by racking up nine tackles, a sack, and two tackles for loss. Even the special teams came through big, with true freshmen Chris Borland blocking a punt and David Gilbert recovering it for a big second quarter touchdown. However, the team is not playing perfect football through four quarters and will need to improve before facing a desperate team in Michigan State.

“We seemed sluggish from the beginning, but not from defensive point of view,” head coach Bret Bielema said. “Our objective is work together. We need 11 guys on the field focused on what they need to do on every snap.”

Saturday marks the start of the Big Ten season and Wisconsin will need to prove they can run the ball without fear of putting it on the ground. That was the first issue Bielema addressed in his post-game press conference.

“I know there’s an issue, we fumbled the ball, we cannot have that happen,” he said. “As head coach, I will take responsibility, will get that corrected and will move forward.
“There were a lot of positives, but some positives have to come through negative actions.”

With that, I’m going to utilize as many interviews as I can from after Saturday’s game and let the players and coach answer my weekly questions.

Can Wisconsin stop Wofford’s triple option, which is very similar to the offense run by Cal Poly in the 2008 season finale?

The defense’s response to the third different style of offense they’ve seen in three weeks was praised early on after the game by coach Bret Bielema. It was the third straight game where the defense had three or more takeaways.

“I liked how our defense came ready to play and knew what we needed to do to get a win,” Bielema said.

Later, Bielema expanded on his satisfaction, saying the defense is expected to compete against a different style of offense every week in Big Ten play.

It was a totally different offensive structure than they had played, but they zoned in on it,” he said. “In the Big Ten, you have to focus in on the style of play of your opponent every week.”

St. Jean said the team had Cal Poly dreamin’ in their minds when preparing for Wofford. He added that as strange as it sounded, the game was circled on the team’s calendar as a burden of proof.

“We took the Cal Poly game very personal,” St. Jean said. “We just (had) to make a statement and we needed to find ourselves as a defense.”

Wofford Wisconsin Football“Anytime you play an offense like that you need to be assignment sound, read keys, and make sure guys are in the right spots making plays,” safety Chris Maragos said. “We did that today and that’s why we had success.”

Which defensive line pass rush will we see: the one that pressured NIU all day or the cupcake baking they did against Fresno?

Wofford only attempted seven passes, including one interception, but the defense managed to record two sacks and six tackles for loss. The defensive line played well, but it was ultimately the linebackers that provided the highlights with a sack, five tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

Freshman Mike Taylor is feeling more confident in what he’s doing.

“I think every week I’m getting a little better,” Taylor said. “We had two defensive penalties all game. That takes a lot of pressure off your shoulders.”

How will John Clay perform in his first career start?

Twelve carries for 70 yards isn’t bad. Three fumbles in 12 carries is. This is the biggest problem the Badgers faced all game, and is apparent that Clay and Zack Brown will be taking quite a few gut shots this week with their combined five fumbles on the game.

“In regards to way we played today, it wasn’t where we needed to be,” Bielema said. “Sometimes the best amount of pressure can come from their teammates.”

Tolzien said the team will definitely be emphasizing ball security leading up to the Michigan State game. He added that practice is essential to correcting the problem.

“Just practicing better, that’s where you make money during the week on the practice field,” he said. “In games, it’s going to come, we just have to keep at it.”

Wofford Wisconsin Football

This Badger team proved it could handle unusual circumstances off the field, but will there be a hangover effect against a lesser opponent?


Apparently not, and different weapons were showcased again this week, such as Kendricks, who has been waiting for a chance to do more than block.

“It was tough with the fumbles after working downfield,” Kendricks said. “I just snapped into it, my confidence grew. It felt good going out and catching balls like that.”

Kendricks was also quick to credit Tolzien for his ball placement.

“He has a lot of poise, does a great job delivering ball to everybody,” he said. (About his touchdown pass) “I tried to get open a bit, he threw it high where it should be and I was able to get it.”

Overall, Tolzien said he is ready for his first Big Ten start and feels the team is in a good position heading into this weekend.

“I feel pretty good, coach Chryst has us all prepared from top to bottom,” he said. “Then again, all the experience you get in games is valuable too, so three games has helped.”

In the second quarter, the Badgers scored 28 points, and committed zero penalties. Can the team find a way to harness that dominance over more than a quarter of play?

Or what are the chances of the exact opposite, where the defense implodes and gives up 28 points? Is that worse than the way they lost to State last year?

Coach Bielema laughed a little about students yelling “Tolzien for Heisman” heading down the locker room tunnel. Obviously that slogan is pretty farfetched, but what can Tolzien do in a high pressure game against a tough opponent?

Will I have Allan Evridge or John Stocco flashbacks? Are either of those good to have?

Can the Badgers protect the ball?

I really don’t need any further explanation. You all know how frustrating fumbles are.

During his post-game conference, Bielema remarked about the depth at the offensive line because of nicked up starters. Can he find a way to balance their playing time while keeping the line at full strength?

Either way, can the line fuse together to help the running game come together?

Wisconsin Badger update: Questions have been answered…at least for this week

Here he comes...the Bieldozer!!!

Here he comes...the Bieldozer!!!

By Jake McCormick

Breathe a little easier, Badger fans. We won our NCAA-leading 12th straight season opener. We may have found a quarterback that can actually throw, a slew of underrated receivers with almost every skill set covered, and a defense that has already matched half of last year’s total for sacks and tackles for loss. A 28-20 victory over Northern Illinois isn’t exactly the same as beating Ohio State, but a lot of preseason questions were answered throughout the game. Here are just a few:

Scott TolzienHow will Scott Tolzien do in his debut?
“Who the hell is Scott Tolzien?” Well apparently he’s accurate, puts a little muscle behind his passes, and is confident enough to hit his receivers in stride for an 80-yard touchdown on the first offensive play of 2009. Tolzien’s teammates said he was in emotional purgatory with his nerves, and his 15-20, 257 yards and 1 TD were the end result. For a Badger quarterback, those are good numbers, and with the receivers he has he shouldn’t have any problems finding a good target to throw to on any down. Now we have to wait and see if he can limit his mistakes and throw up similar stats against a much better Fresno State team that is returning nine defensive starters from 2008.

How will Zack Brown and John Clay be utilized?
They received almost an identical number of carries, with Brown getting 15 and Clay grabbing the rock 14 times. They are definitely a good compliment to each other, with Brown flashing a bit more speed and Clay trying to bulldoze defenders. However, neither player stood out against a less than stellar defense, but some of that can be attributed to the lack of a full strength offensive line. I don’t put much weight into Clay’s touchdowns either, because they came in stereotypical Badger fashion: a long drive complete with a few good passing plays, then the running game takes over inside the 10 yard line. The running game’s success will come with time, but one of these players needs to stand out as a frontline starter if Wisconsin is going to notch any quality wins in the Big Ten Conference.

Will anyone step up as a defensive playmaker other thJaevery McFaddenan the obvious seniors?
Yes, and I would like to introduce Badger Nation to sophomore defensive end JJ Watt and freshman linebacker Mike Taylor. Both players lit a match under the defense by putting pressure on the Northern Illinois quarterback and coming up with some big stops behind the line of scrimmage. Wisconsin was so abysmal at making tackles for loss last year that I swear Bielema had them playing that kid game where the backfield is lava and if you go past the line of scrimmage you “die.” These two didn’t get that memo, and along with seniors Jaevery McFadden, O’Brien Schofield, and Chris Maragos, the defense gained some confidence in its abilities to stop teams late in the fourth quarter and create impact plays.

Can the defense perform at a high level until the clock reads triple zeros?
This is a question going into the Fresno State game as well, because Wisconsin held a 28-6 lead going into the fourth quarter and allowed NIU to reduce the deficit to eight before Maragos batted down a fourth down pass to solidify the win for Wisconsin. After the game, almost all the Badger defensive starters said they came into the huddle on that series, looked at each other, and just knew they would make the stop. That’s the kind of confidence that was lacking last year, and should be something to build off of heading into a game where their opponent returns eight offensive starters.

Questions for Wisconsin vs. Fresno State:

How long will Bielema try the Curt Phillips Experience?
In 2000, Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez decided to substitute a redshirt freshman at quarterback against Ohio State trailing by 20, reasoning that he had been getting his feet wet for a few weeks and the team really had nothing to lose by doing so. The end result was a 42-20 Badger win, and the rest is history. The quarterback’s name was Brooks Bollinger. I’m not saying Phillips will make that dramatic of a debut, but it will be interesting to see how beneficial this “platoon” will be to his development and if Tolzien gets hurt or starts playing like Allan Evridge.

John ClayHow will the offense perform under Tolzien against a much faster and more experienced defense?
Fresno State’s defense is quick and aggressive, which should allow Tolzien to get some good downfield looks from his receivers. Fresno State is a good team and will give the Badger playmakers their best test before Big Ten season rolls around.

With an offensive line that averages 6’6” 324 lbs going against a defensive line that averages 6’3” 265 lbs, can Wisconsin finally ride the Boring Ball wagon to victory on the backs of Brown and/or Clay?
If I’m sleeping through the game and they’re winning, you’ll know right away why.

Can the special teams rebound, especially Lou Groza finalist Philip Welch?
An NIU-recovered onside kick led to a Huskie score. Two Philip Welch field goals missed their mark, granted one was from beyond 50 yards. The return game didn’t show any flashes of Nick Davis, Jim Leonhard, or Brandon Williams. Special teams are often overlooked, but the Badgers need to improve this aspect the most if they want to win tight games. Welch should return to 2008 form quickly, but the return game needs to do some work of its own.

Fresno State is a good team and shouldn’t be taken lightly. The key to the game may not even be within the 60-minute time frame; a recent report said as many as 25 Badger players may have swine flu symptoms. The program has been hush about it, but Bielema didn’t let his players talk to the media yesterday after practice. Time will tell what is really going to happen, but if that many players are kept out (and possibly more), the implications nationally are a lot bigger than just one Wisconsin game.

Badger depth chart finalized…for now

Here's your new Wisconsin starting quarterback, Scott Tolzien!!

Here's your new Wisconsin starting quarterback, Scott Tolzien!!

By Jake McCormick

Who the hell is Scott Tolzien?

I’m sure more than a few Badger fans are asking that right now, considering the junior has just been named the starter for the season opener against Northern Illinois. Someone had to win the battle for the starting quarterback position, and Tolzien has apparently stood out to the Wisconsin coaching staff. Bret Bielema released his starting lineup Thursday, and there were some interesting choices at other positions as well.

Tolzien is closer to John Stocco and Jim Sorgi in make-up than Brooks Bollinger and Mike Samuel. He is a pocket quarterback, possesses the most knowledge about the Badger playbook (run-run-pass is so hard, isn’t it?), has the best arm, and won’t make the mistakes of a freshman.

I don’t see the decision to start Tolzien as a bad move for the Badgers, as it allows freshman Curt Phillips time to develop into a better passer and Tolzien has another year of eligibility left. A more overlooked positive to this choice is the potential for a platoon ala Chris Leak and Tim Tebow. OK, they obviously won’t make that sort of impact, but a combination of the strong-armed Tolzien and fleet footed Phillips could throw a much-needed wrinkle into a normally boring offense.

Zack BrownBielema also has named junior Zack Brown as the starting running back over highly-touted sophomore John Clay. This is the most interesting choice by far. Clay is the only Badger that is recognized nationally as a soon-to-be stud, but there are a few reasons Brown might be a better choice at this juncture. He probably understands the offense much more than Clay, and it’s possible Clay’s ankle problem has returned from the grave. Clay will see his fair share of carries in an offense that led the Big Ten in rushing yards a year ago. Personally I think Clay should be starting, but it’s not like the starters are set in stone for the entire season.

At the wide receiver position, sophomore Nick Toon and junior Isaac Anderson give Tolzien big targets with good hands. Putting Gilreath in the slot position will keep teams guessing when he goes in motion, and that’s a necessity with an inexperienced quarterback.

The defensive tackle positions have been a big question mark, and there’s only so many Rudy’s that can play at a given time. But senior Jeff Stehle has made enough of an impact in training camp to convincingly win one of the starting spots. If he can be a leader with O’Brien Schofield on the line, the defense might surprise some people.

If you read the Badger defensive preview I wrote about two weeks ago, I mentioned that the Badger linebackers were very deep and there might be some surprises. Sure enough, Blake Sorenson has been pushed out of the strong side and into a competition for the middle spot with Culmer St. Jean. The guy that beat him out? Freshman Mike Taylor, who missed a lot of camp with a neck injury suffered in high school, still managed to lock down the strong side.

Niles Brinkley led the 2008 Badgers in interceptions, but pulled an Al Harris and got beat deep a lot. He has lost his starting job to sophomore Devin Smith, who has played at a consistent level throughout training camp. I’ll sacrifice interceptions for fewer points against any day.

The Badgers aren’t expected to make a run at the Big Ten title, but this year will be interesting enough, not Garrett Grahamincluding the possibility of a 2010 coaching search if they fall flat. My guess would be Barry Alvarez would pull a Dick Cheney by conducting a “search,” deciding no one is good enough, and re-appointing himself to the position.
Besides that, this team is extremely young and will basically be learning on the fly. There are only seven seniors in the first and second team offense and defense combined, with two on offense and five on defense. Likewise, there are 12 first or second year players on offense and 14 on defense. So if Wisconsin starts losing, we can use the excuse that the team is for the most part still learning the college game. Yay!

Season prediction: 8-4 (4-4 in the Big Ten)
The Badgers have to go 3-0 against NIU, Fresno State, and Wofford if they are expecting to even be competitive when Michigan State comes to Madison. That’s just the start of a tough stretch of travel to Minnesota, where they will play in a real football stadium for the first time since Tainted Love was a hit (I’ll save you’re wikipedia search and tell you it was 1981), and against No. 6-ranked Ohio State. No. 22-ranked Iowa comes to town the next week to continue the tough run. After that, the rest of the schedule looks like a cakewalk, although Wisconsin always finds a way to make tough games really close and “easy” games really bad. To quote Philip Seymour Hoffman quoting a Zen master in Charlie Wilson’s War: “We’ll see.”

Big Ten Power Rankings

ohio_jesus

By Paul M. Banks
Now that Big Ten Football Media Days in Chicago are over, and the cases have been made for the strengths and weaknesses of the league’s 11 teams in the “City of Broad Shoulders,” it’s time to sort the league’s macho men from the weaklings. And, of course these rankings are highly subject to change.

Last year’s record (and when applicable, bowl appearance) is in parentheses


1.    Ohio State (10-3, 7-1, Fiesta Bowl loss to Texas)
Once again it’s re-loading not re-building in Columbus. With Boom Herron filling it for Beanie Wells and a whole slew of new talent filling in at key defensive positions, the scarlet and grey will have a new look this fall. Although the Bucks have looked terrible in January bowls lately, they’re still the class of the league, and look for the “sweater vest” to maintain that primary position again this season. Preseason Offensive Player of the Year Terrelle Pryor will be fun to watch.

2.    Penn State (11-2, 7-1, Rose Bowl loss to USC)
Like President Barack Obama said, “it’s not enough to change the players, you have to change the game” and the 82 year old Joe Paterno and his staff have innovated the “Spread HD” enough to make the Nittany Lions consistently win again in spite of turnover. Offseason defections hurt again, but there’s still plenty left. QB Darryl Clark, RB Evan Royster, LB Sean Lee and DT Jared Odrick are all ballers, and if this team can find some good replacements on the OL, and possibly another CB, the BCS could come calling.

3.    Michigan State (9-4, 6-2, Citrus Bowl loss to Georgia)
It all depends on how well they replace Javon Ringer. They’ll also be breaking in a new starter at Quarterback (Kirk Cousins or Keith Nichol) but you can tell the new QBs “Dude, you’re getting a Dell,” as in WR Mark Dell, one of the best in the league. With him, as well as an outstanding defense led by Preseason Defensive Player of the Year Greg Jones, this team will be very good.

4.    Northwestern (9-4, 5-3, Alamo Bowl loss to Missouri)
Sure, they have to replace everybody at the offensive skill positions, but the new starter at QB, Mike Kafka, is an upgrade in my opinion. With a QB rushing record already on his resume, he’s more of a dual threat (and less of an interception risk) than C.J. Bacher. Not to mention the heart and soul of this team (the defense) returns mostly in tact from last year’s campaign- when they set a school record for stopping the run. And the easy schedule (Towson, Eastern Michigan, no Ohio State or Michigan) just screams ten win season.mikekafka

5.    Iowa (9-4, 5-3, Outback Bowl victory over South Carolina)
Wow! Do they have some big, dominating corn-fed boys on the O line. Their hogs up front can go to-to-toe with just about any front seven. But losing some of their playmakers on defense (and trying to replace Shonn Greene with Jewel Hampton) will take its toll. If their Jewel is IGI Certified and not a Cubic Zirconia then another 8-4 looks reasonable.

6.    Illinois (5-7, 3-5)
This program has no consistency at all. The orange and blue often falter under high expectations and only seem to thrive when people don’t take them seriously. This fall, projections are mixed/somewhat positive so 7-5 and a third-tier bowl sounds about right. With the combination of QB Isaiah “Juice” Williams and WR Arrelious “Rejus” Benn (go to 7-to-9.com), the offense will shine brighter than the diamond in Juice’s right ear. However, the defense was lacking last season, and lost its best playmakers, so mediocrity is imminent.

7.    Wisconsin (7-6, 3-5, Champs Bowl loss to Florida St.)
Can you feel that seat getting warmer and warmer, Mr. Bielema? Wisco will once again have plenty of talent at the RB and TE positions, but questions abound at QB and all-over-the-place on the defensive side of the ball. They have enough talent to surprise, but another 6-6 level season looks more likely.

8.    Michigan (3-9, 2-6) There is talent on this roster, but there’s also a hot mess at numerous positions; including quarterback which as you know, is quite an important position. They’ll take a step forward this year, but then again how could they really take a step back?gophercheer

9.    Minnesota (7-6, 3-5, Insight Bowl loss to Kansas)
It’s hard to find a team that had a more bipolar season than the Gophers in ’08. They were golden in the first 8 games, but far from a precious metal in November and the postseason. With local boy and baseball star Eric Decker at WR they have one of the best offensive players in the league, and the guy throwing to the Big Ten’s Wes Welker, Adam Weber isn’t half-bad either. But after that, the roster isn’t that overwhelmingly impressive.

10.    Purdue (4-8, 2-6)
Transitions are very tough, but they don’t often last very long. Joe Tiller left a very favorable mark on this program, and there is lots of “Hope” for Danny his successor, just not this year. I’m not sold on QB Joey Elliot, the least signal-caller we’ve seen in West Lafayette in quite some time. Don’t expect anything resembling “basketball on grass” this fall.

11.    Indiana (3-9, 1-7) It looks bleak for the two Big Ten football teams in “the crossroads of America.” But hey, it’s a basketball state anyway. At least the Hoosiers can boast quite possibly the most interesting man in college football. DE Jammie Kirlew, is more than just a stud lineman, he’s spent summers interning for the Obama campaign, producing movies, and learning Italian while studying abroad in Florence. By far, my favorite part of media days was discussing the Renaissance and European culture with him. Seriously.

Wisconsin Badger football preview part 1: The offense

Badger helmet

By Jake McCormick

Three years ago, Wisconsin Badger football coach Bret Bielema did something the legendary Barry Alvarez never could – win a school record 12 games. With that, Badger fans breathed a collective sigh of relief for a program’s seemingly bright future without the man who changed a football culture faster than Emperor Palpatine converted Anakin Skywalker. But when the most exciting part of a football game is whether or not your team wins the coin toss, you know there are some serious kinks in the armor. Now they seem to be showing up again, as Bielema has responded to his record-setting debut with consecutive seasons of increased losses, including an embarrassing 42-13 thrashing at the hands of Florida State at the 2008 Champ Sports Bowl and a 2008 3-5 record in Big Ten play.

Bret BielemaThe Wisconsin offense has always been a run-first pass-second unit that just expects its quarterbacks to limit mistakes while making plays with their legs as well as arms. However, the 2008 Badger offense struggled outside of its running game, courtesy of inconsistent quarterbacking. Wisconsin returns six offensive starters from last year, including playmakers at the tight end, wide receiver, and running back positions. But the team’s overall success hinges on the man who handles the snap, and Bielema needs a steady captain if he wants to return for a fifth season as the Badger head coach.

2008 record: 7-6 (3-5 in the Big Ten)
Returning starters: 6
Total Offense: 399.23 (37th in the nation, 3rd in the Big Ten)
Scoring Offense: 27.46 (47th, 5th)
Rushing Offense: 211.15 (14th, 1st)
Passing Offense: 188.08 (84th, 7th)

Notable returns:
Tight end Garrett Graham, WR Issac Anderson, RB Zach Brown, RB John Clay, WR David Gilreath, OT Gabe Carimi, C John Moffitt

Key losses:
Tight end Travis Beckum, RB P.J. Hill, G Kraig Urbik, OT Eric Vanden Heuvel

Quarterback:
I still have migraines from thinking about the heated Dustin Sherer vs. Allen Evridge battle that took place last year. I would’ve been fine with just snapping the ball to P.J. Hill or David Gilreath, but apparently their arms are slightly less accurate than the actual quarterbacks on the roster. Sherer is returning and will compete against redshirt freshman Curt Phillips for the starting job. Phillips looks more like Brooks Bollinger and Mike Samuel, except he can hit a moving target. Sherer is more of a traditional quarterback, and that could work against him if Bielema realizes a game manager is more important to a run-first team than a gunslinger. In NFL terms, this means I would take Chad Pennington over Brett Favre, but I guess that does make sense at this point in time.

I think Sherer has the edge right away because he had valuable experience last year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Phillips makes a Bollinger-like debut and resurrects some faith in an offense filled with potential playmakers. Phillips or Sherer need to establish their place as the field general early in camp, because going into the season with more questions about the most important position on the field won’t help fan confidence in Bielema and his players.

Running back:
John ClayThis position never has and never will be a problem for the Badgers. Although last year’s leading rusher P.J. Hill left early for the NFL Draft, he was never a breakaway runner and benefited from getting a five yard head start behind five guys averaging 6’5” 300 lbs. Sophomore John Clay turned in a promising freshman campaign with 884 yards and 9 touchdowns and will make Wisconsin fans forget all about a twinkle-toed big man who couldn’t take many hits. Clay is a bruiser and has big play written all over him. Combined with change of pace back Zack Brown, the duo will easily match Hill’s production and continue Wisconsin’s tradition of a great running game. I’m so confident in the depth and talent at the running back position that I don’t think any other explanations are needed. This is the bread and butter of the Wisconsin offense.

Wide receivers/tight ends:
Wisconsin also has a recently established tradition of turning out quality wide receivers like Lee Evans and Chris Chambers. This year’s squad doesn’t have a bonafide star, but David Gilreath catches lightning in a bottle every week with his versatile run/catch/return game. As long as he stays healthy, Gilreath gives the Badgers the very poor man’s version of Percy Harvin, and will mostly play the slot to keep opponents guessing when he goes in motion.

Receiver Nick Toon came on strong at the end of last year and will make a bid to start the season opener. At 6’3”, Toon is built for big plays, and he will have more than a few opportunities to live up to father Al Toon’s legacy as a Badger. Isaac Anderson looks to be the frontrunner to start as well given deep threat Kyle Jefferson’s multiple blows to the head and questionable attitude. The Badger receivers are filled with potential, and if they click with whoever lines up under center, they’ll jump around all the way to the top of the Big Ten standings.

Garrett GrahamWisconsin quarterbacks have also had the luxury of solid pass catching tight ends over the past few years, and 2008 leading receiver Garrett Graham should continue to establish himself as one of the elite tight ends in the nation. He’s a workhorse blocker and always seems to find a way to get open without drawing too much attention, much like ex-Badger and current Houston Texan starter Owen Daniels. Converted receiver Lance Kendricks gives Wisconsin a dangerous tight end combination that should perform much better than last year’s set of Travis Beckum/Graham as long as both stay healthy.

Offensive line:
Departed guards Kraig Urbik and Andy Kemp, and tackle Eric Vanden Heuvel combined for 121 career starts, and their experience and chemistry will definitely be missed. Tackle Gabe Carimi and center John Moffitt are the only two returning starters from last year’s squad, but I’m not exactly worried about a major drop off in production. The Badgers do a good job of preparing for offensive line turnover by holding a corn eating and milk chugging contest to determine which recruits are worthy enough to take cheap shots to the knees from Ohio State. Even with this method of recruitment, the team always finds great run blockers to fit into their scheme. Of course, it’s easy to plug 6’5” 300 lbs linemen into a system that just asks them to hit somebody every play and let the running back do the rest.

Wisconsin does a great job of getting consistent starts out of most of its linemen, but also doesn’t take their durability for granted, which helps younger players like Jake Bscherer and Josh Ogelsby prepare to take over starting spots. Of course, the line was also very good at summoning the yellow flags in 2008 and killed more than a couple drive with false starts and holding penalties. Nothing is more frustrating or confidence-killing, and this absolutely needs to be cleaned up if Wisconsin wants to even sniff a January bowl bid.

The Wisconsin Badger offense had its fair share of troubles last year, and most of those problems can be resolved by better quarterback play and less penalties. The Badgers have playmakers at each position except under center, and Sherer should have built enough confidence as a leader to bring those skills out of guys like Clay, Gilreath, and Graham. The Badgers will run early and often, but they won’t get ahead in every game they play and will need to respond accordingly when they fall behind. A solid quarterback elevates everyone else around him. If Sherer or Phillips can answer the call at three in the morning, the Wisconsin offense will return to elite status in the Big Ten.